Marital Privilege Argument Premature in Insurance Broker’s Trade Secrets Case Against Former Agent – IL ND

The district court in Cornerstone Assurance Group v. Harrison discusses the Federal court plausibility standard for pleadings and considers whether Illinois’s marital privilege statute defeats an insurance broker’s trade secrets suit against a former employee.

The defendant signed an employment contract that contained a confidentiality provision covering plaintiff’s financial information, marketing plans, client leads, prospects, and lists along with fee schedules, and computer software.  Plaintiff paid defendant $1,000 not to disclose plaintiff’s confidential information.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant disclosed the information – including a protected client list and private medical data – to her husband, who worked for a competing broker.  The plaintiff alleged the competitor used that information to recruit plaintiff’s employees.  The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

Trade Secrets Claim

Denying the motion, the court first looked to the pleading requirements of a claim under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, et seq.To prevail on a claim for misappropriation of a trade secret under the [ITSA], the plaintiff must demonstrate (1) the information at issue was a trade secret, (2) that the information was misappropriated, and (3) that it was used in the defendant’s business.

ITSA defines a trade secret as information, data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers, that is (1) sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (20 is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality. 765 ILCS 1065/2(d)

The law does not confer trade secret status for information “generally known or understood within an industry even if not to the public at large.”  A plaintiff also foregoes trade secret protection where it fails to take affirmative measures to keep others from using the proprietary information.  In addition to these statutory guideposts, Illinois case law considers several additional factors that inform the trade secrets analysis.  These include: (1) the extent to which the information is known outside of the plaintiff s business; (2) the extent to which the information is known by employees and others involved in the plaintiff s business; (3) the extent of measures taken by the plaintiff to guard the secrecy of the information; (4) the value of the information to the plaintiff s business and to its competitors; (5) the amount of time, effort and money expended by the plaintiff in developing the information; and (6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others.  No one factor predominates but the more factors present increases plaintiff’s chances of establishing a trade secret.

The Court held the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to show that some of the information allegedly misappropriated was a trade secret.  Under Illinois law, a list of actual or potential customers as well as insurance claims data can qualify as a trade secret under certain facts.  The plaintiff’s Complaint allegations that it spent several years developing the confidential data at issue and that it wasn’t accessible to others satisfied the pleading requirements for a valid trade secrets case.

Marital Communications Privilege

The Court held it was too soon to address Defendant’s argument that the marital privilege statute negated Plaintiff’s claims.  The marital privilege attaches to husband and wife communications.  But a spouse’s communication to a third party waives the privilege and a litigant is free to use that communication against its adversary.  The marital privilege also doesn’t extend to subsequent uses of protected communication.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-801 (husband and wife may not testify to communication or admission made by either of them to each other.)

While the court opted to table the privilege issue until after discovery, the Court noted the plaintiff alleged the defendant disclosed trade secrets not only to her husband but to a third party – the husband’s employer. Since the Complaint established it was possible the defendant shared information with someone other than her husband, the marital privilege didn’t bar plaintiff’s claims at the case’s pleading stage.

Afterwords

This case represents a court flexibly applying Rule 12’s plausibility standard in the trade secrets context.  Solidifying the proposition that a plaintiff doesn’t have to plead evidence or try its case at the pleading stage, the Court makes clear that disclosure of a trade secret to even a single competitor can satisfy the misappropriation prong of a trade secrets claim.  Harrison also shows the marital communications privilege won’t apply to information that escapes a husband-wife union.  A complaint’s plausible allegation that protected information went beyond the confines of the marital union nullifies the marital privilege.

Contractual Indemnity Clause May Apply to Direct Action in Bond Offering Snafu; No Joint-Work Copyright Protection for PPM – IL ND

The Plaintiff in UIRC-GSA Holdings, Inc. v. William Blair & Company, 2017 WL 3706625 (N.D.Ill. 2017), sued its investment banker for copyright infringement and professional negligence claiming the banker used the plaintiff’s protected intellectual property – private placement memoranda – to get business from other clients.  The parties previously executed an engagement agreement (“Agreement”) which required the banker to facilitate plaintiff’s purchase of real estate through bond issues.

The banker denied infringing plaintiff’s copyrights and counterclaimed for breach of contract, contractual indemnity and tortious interference with contract.  Plaintiff moved to dismiss all counterclaims.

In partially granting and denying the (12(b)(6)) motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District examined the pleading elements for joint-author copyright infringement and tortious interference claims and considered the reach of contractual indemnification provisions.

The counterclaiming banker first asserted that it was a joint owner of the private placement documents and sought an accounting of the plaintiff’s profits generated through use of the materials.  Rejecting this argument, the Court stated the Copyright’s definition of a ‘joint work’: “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that the authors’ work be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” 17 U.S.C. 101.

To establish co-authorship, the copyright plaintiff must establish (1) an intent to create a joint work, and (2) independently copyrightable contributions to the material.  The intent prong simply means the two (or more) parties intended to work together to create a single product; not that they specifically agreed to be legal co-copyright holders.

To meet the independently copyrightable element (the test’s second prong), the Court noted that “ideas, refinements, and suggestions” are not copyrightable.  Instead, the contributed work must possess a modicum of creativity vital to a work’s end product and commercial viability.

Here, while the counter-plaintiff alleged an intent to create a joint work, it failed to allege any specific contributions to the subject private placement documents.  Without specifying any copyrightable contributions to the documents, the investment firm failed to satisfy the pleading standards for a joint ownership copyright claim.

The court next considered the banker’s indemnification claim – premised on indemnity (one party promises to compensate another for any loss) language in the Agreement. The provision broadly applied to all claims against the counter-plaintiff arising from or relating to the Agreement.  The plaintiff argued that by definition, the indemnity language didn’t apply to direct actions between the parties and only covered third-party claims (claims brought by someone other than plaintiff or defendant).

The Court rejected this argument and found the indemnity language ambiguous.  The discrepancy between the Agreement’s expansive indemnification language in one section and other Agreement sections that spoke to notice requirements and duties to defend made it equally plausible the indemnity clause covered both third-party and first-party/direct actions.  Because of this textual conflict, the Court held it was premature to dismiss the claim without discovery on the parties’ intent.

The court also sustained the banker’s tortious interference counterclaim against plaintiff’s motion to dismiss.  The counter-plaintiff alleged the plaintiff sued and threatened to continue suing one of the counter-plaintiff’s clients (and a competitor of the plaintiff’s) to stop the client from competing with the plaintiff in the bond market.  While the act of filing a lawsuit normally won’t support a tortious interference claim, where a defendant threatens litigation to dissuade someone from doing business with a plaintiff can state a tortious interference claim.

Take-aways:

Contractual indemnity provisions are construed like any other contract.  If the text is clear, it will be enforced as written.  In drafting indemnity clauses, the parties should take pains to clarify whether it applies only to third-party claims or if it also covers direct actions between the parties.  Otherwise, the parties risk having to pay the opposing litigant’s defense fees.

Filing a lawsuit alone, isn’t enough for a tortious interference claim.  However, the threat of litigation to dissuade someone from doing business with another can be sufficient business interference to support such a claim.

Joint ownership in copyrighted materials requires both an intent for joint authorship and copyrightable contributions from each author to merit legal protection.